Sometimes it seems as though the food/nutrition world is obsessed with labels. Grain-free, clean, gluten-free, low-carb, vegan, raw, cruelty-free, Paleo, sugar-free, sustainably-sourced, the list goes on. You don’t have to look hard to find bloggers and media mavens selling these trends online. Each claims to have found the secret to a “cleaner,” more healthful diet. But recently, more people have turned a critical lens to restrictive diets of self-proclaimed nutrition “experts,” partially because the media has drawn attention to a new label: orthorexic.
Orthorexia nervosa means a “fixation on righteous eating.” Individuals with orthorexia may experience an obsession with “pure” eating that is so strong it can harm their physical and psychological status. It’s not yet officially classified as an eating disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However, orthorexia is a serious problem that often requires treatment from health professionals.
One blogger who has struggled with orthorexia captures the experience:
” I started living in a bubble of restriction. Entirely vegan, entirely plant-based, entirely gluten-free, oil-free, refined sugar-free, flour-free, dressing/sauce-free, etc. and lived my life based off of when I could and could not eat and what I could and could not combine.”
For a person suffering from orthorexia, meals are something to control rather than enjoy. Unlike anorexia nervosa, orthorexia is typically driven by a desire to be healthy, rather than a desire to be thin. However, the disorder can still result in under-nutrition or other serious nutrient deficiencies. Orthorexics may have serious misconceptions about nutrition. Some will exclude entire food groups (grains, dairy, etc.) or types of foods from their diet because they (not scientific experts) deem them unhealthful. This extreme dietary restriction can quickly become overwhelming. It disrupts not only not only their health, but their daily routines and social lives.
A desire to eat more healthfully, prevent disease, and manage your weight is usually a good thing. But in a small handful of individuals, this desire can take hold and develop into orthorexia. So how do you know if your desire for healthful eating gone too far? The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) warns that you might have an unhealthy obsession with healthful eating if:
- [Your diet] is taking up an inordinate amount of time and attention in your life
- Deviating from your diet results in guilt and self-loathing
- You use [your diet] to avoid life issues, leaving you separate and alone.
Orthorexia’s rise in prominence mirrors the media’s fascination with “clean” eating and extreme diets. Take a quick trip to social media and you’ll notice this trend. Selfies of attractive women sipping green juices after a barre workout; bloggers sharing recipes for raw carob brownies. It’s all evidence that extreme, scientifically unfounded diets have seeped into popular culture.
For some followers, these bloggers have become the Instagram models of health in the 21st century. Between fashion sense and expensive diets, it’s no surprise granola-glam bloggers are so popular. We all want to “have it together” like they appear to. But that doesn’t mean we should all be trying their restrictive and scientifically dubious diet plans.
The glamor of these blogs might be masking a more insidious problem. Many of the practices they espouse (like “clean” eating or juice cleansing) seem relatively harmless at first, but readers may take them to extremes. Glorification of these diets may trigger unbalanced eating habits in individuals who are prone to restrictive or obsessive behavior.
Orthorexia is an important reminder of the psychological aspects of health and nutrition. You may think you have the perfect diet, but if that diet causes you anxiety and social isolation, it’s not a perfect diet. It also serves as a reminder that there is no one-size-fits-all nutrition prescription. Instead of striving for perfection, focus on doing your best with your unique nutrition needs, budget, and tastes.
And (every once in a while) we can just skip the spirulina and have a cookie. Dietitian’s orders!
If you think you might be suffering from an eating disorder, please call the NEDA Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.